A fire that heavily damaged a residential hotel in Lodi this week showed the danger posed by aging structures that aren’t required to have sprinklers, fire authorities said.
No one died in the fire at the Star Hotel on Monday, but it could have been much worse, officials said.
The blaze at the ramshackle three-story structure in downtown Lodi forced 50 residents onto the street early Monday morning. Alarms weren't working, residents said, so they pounded on each others' doors and got everyone out safely.
Lodi Fire Department Battalion Chief Michael Allegre said he’d been expecting to see bodies when firefighters entered the densely-populated hotel, which was filled with thick smoke.
“We really dodged a bullet,” he said.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation; electrical problems are a suspected culprit, Allegre said.
What is known is that the hotel didn't have sprinklers and probably wasn't required to under state or local rules, officials said. Two older residential hotels next door to the Star on South Main Street also lack sprinklers, the battalion chief said. The buildings date from the early 1900s.
The low-rent hotels, a regular source of nuisance complaints, have caused firefighters to worry for years that blazes there could result in a large loss of life. The hotels are densely populated and lack fire suppression equipment, Allegre said.
The same is true of many older hotels, motels and and apartment buildings throughout California.
The basic rule is that the buildings must only meet the fire-code requirements that existed at the time they were built. Sprinklers weren't required by the state in larger multi-unit dwellings, including hotels, until the late 1980s.
Buildings constructed before then, which haven’t changed uses or undergone significant remodels, generally aren't required to have sprinklers, said Wendy Collins, an assistant deputy director with the state fire marshal's office. High-rise buildings are an exception, she said.
"Every building has to meet the fire and building codes of the year that it was constructed," Collins said. "That's the baseline."
Cities and counties can adopt stricter standards than the state requires but often don’t, she said.
Fire departments may have rows of code books going back decades so they can look up the rules that were in place when a structure was built, Collins said.
"If it’s a building that will require an annual inspection, they would need to know what code (year) to inspect it to," she said.
In Sacramento County, for example, that means the one- and two-story motels built in the middle decades of the 20th century often don't have sprinklers unless they've been through a major remodel, said Diana Schmidt, a fire inspector with the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District.
The structures still must have working alarms and fire extinguishers, she said.
The city of Sacramento has seven active single-room occupancy hotels, mostly downtown, but the older ones have all been equipped with sprinklers during renovations, said city Fire Marshal Jason Lee.
Like the Star Hotel in Lodi, Sacramento’s SROs frequently house residents who are on the economic margins.
The dwellings get an extra level of scrutiny from code inspectors, Lee said.
In other hotels, inspectors will check common areas but not go room by room, he said. In SROs, the inspectors enter each room to look for problems such as cooking appliances or unsafe extension cords, Lee said. The rooms tend to be small, with bedding and belongings taking up much of the space in each unit, he said
Lee said the SROs in Sacramento are carefully monitored and aren't especially worrisome to fire authorities.
In urban areas, the bigger problem, he said, are vacant warehouses and other spaces being used illegally for parties and raves. If fire officials find out about unpermitted uses, they will do their best to crack down including going out at night with police, he said.
"It's the (structures) we don't know about ... that keep me up at night," Lee said. "God forbid if there’s a fire. We don’t want people to be trapped and die."
Those structures, too, are unlikely to have modern fire suppression in place.
That was the case with the Ghost Ship, an illegally occupied warehouse in Oakland that burned, killing 36 people, two years ago.
The dilapidated 1930s structure had been converted to a makeshift artists' collective, with some artists taking up residence. It had no sprinklers and only two exits.
City officials had investigated code violations at the warehouse, including faulty electrical wiring and piles of trash, but hadn’t closed it down, the Los Angeles Times reported.
A fire broke out in December 2016 during an unpermitted concert that about 50 people attended. Three dozen of the concertgoers died in one of the deadliest fires in California history.
Collins, with Cal Fire, agreed that the structures being used improperly and without the knowledge of fire inspectors probably pose the greatest risk for loss of life.
Older structures such as the Star Hotel that have been in use for decades, without being retrofitted for fire safety, are another concern, she said.
In well-off areas and larger cities, older buildings tend to get fixed up and outfitted with modern fire suppression equipment, Collins said. In poorer areas or rural communities, that may not happen as quickly or at all, she said.
"If an area was flush with money and new businesses were coming in, that would be one thing," she said, but that’s only the case in certain parts of California.
“If the (Star) hotel was built to code at the time, it would stay that way until it changed occupancy," she said.